Health Tips for Individuals Living with a Spinal Cord Injury
Sustaining a spinal cord injury (SCI) is a physically and mentally traumatic event. The onset leads to a mix of emotions, the first of which is often a feeling of loss of control. If you or a loved one is living with an SCI, there are a number of steps you can take to begin to rebuild your physical strength and self-esteem, including mental wellness, rehabilitation and physical exercise.
Rebuilding mental wellness and autonomy
Loss of independence is a difficult reality to face, and there are a few things you can do to regain control and maintain a healthy mentality about your injury.
As a first step, the Mayo Clinic recommends educating yourself about your injury and your options for reclaiming an independent life. You may also find it helpful to educate your friends and family about what they can do to help. Although it may be uncomfortable at first, talking about your injury will strengthen your relationship with your loved ones in the long term. And don’t be afraid to let people know when they are helping too much.
Secondly, a range of medical devices and specialized equipment are available to help people living with an SCI become more independent, including:
- Modern wheelchairs
- Computer adaptions
- Electronic aids to daily living
- Electrical simulations devices (to spinal-cord-injured individuals to stand, walk, reach, and grip)
- Robotic gait training (an emerging technology for retraining walking ability).
Home modification products are also available to support autonomy, including ramps, wider doors, special sinks, grab bars and easy-to-turn doorknobs.
Importance of rehabilitation
The initial period following sustaining a SCI is a frightening, confusing time. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke provides a comprehensive explanation for why rehabilitation is an important part of the journey to wellness for individuals living with an SCI. Rehabilitation programs are a combination of physical therapies, skill-building activities and counseling to provide social and emotional support. The medical specialists that make up your rehabilitation team will provide you with a customized therapy plan to give you the support you need as you begin to face your new reality:
- Physical therapy includes exercise programs geared toward muscle strengthening. The initial phase focuses on regaining communication skills and leg and arm strength.
- Occupational therapy helps redevelop fine motor skills, particularly those needed to perform activities of daily living.
- Vocational therapy helps determine the likelihood for employment, identifying potential work places and arranging for a user-friendly workplace. For spinal-cord-injured individuals who will not be able to return to the workforce, rehabilitation programs are in place to encourage individuals to participate in activities that will give them a sense of satisfaction and self-esteem, i.e. education classes and community events.
- Recreation therapy encourages individuals living with an SCI to participate in recreational sports or activities at their level of mobility. Such activities are opportunities for socialization and self-expression.
Once you have completed your rehabilitation programs to their fullest potential, establishing a wellness routine can help you maintain functional capacity in the long term. The National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability recommends establishing an exercise routine to reclaim physical strength where possible, and again, establish independence. Depending on the extent of your injury, exercise programming may range from therapeutic standing to progressive resistive exercise. Before you begin an exercise program, it is imperative you consult your physician and choose a facility with experienced personnel and adaptive equipment.
There are a number of risks for individuals living with an SCI to be aware of when it comes to physical exercise:
- Joint contractures or permanent limitations of joint movement usually due to poor positioning, lack of movement and/or muscle spasticity
Muscle atrophy (a shrinking or wasting of musculature due to lack of use)
- Osteoporosis (deterioration of the bone that may occur due to decreased weight bearing, as well as factors related to the injury itself)
Decreased respiratory function- breathing exercises may be necessary
- Sensory deprivation or an inability to accurately discern the nature of the stimuli throughout the body at or below the level of the injury
Whatever your physical goals, a well-rounded exercise program that promotes consistent fitness and helps maintain functional independence is crucial. Dietary habits involving good nutrition and proper hydration are also essential. The National Spinal Cord Injury Associationprovides a helpful list of exercise programs for individuals living with an SCI.
Why should SCI-injured individuals make it a priority to build a strong foundation in independence, rehabilitation and physical fitness? Conquer Paralysis Now, backed by an international coalition of medical doctors, research scientists and business leaders, is meticulously taking steps toward finding a cure for paralysis. We believe that a cure for SCI is achievable within the next decade, and we urge all individuals living with an SCI to be in top health when it arrives.